Jessie Dockins is a needle-felting master. After picking up a starter kit five years ago, the Missouri-based crafter began experimenting with the medium while tapping into her love of nature by trying to create models of animals. As you can see from the images of her art running throughout this article, she now excels at mustering up intricate and endearing wool models of dogs.
Explaining the way she works, Jessie says, “Basically, I use a barbed needle to stab loose wool and other fibers into 3D shapes. The barbs on the needle cause the individual fibers to tangle, creating solid felt shapes. It’s like sculpting, but with wool.
Read on to hear how Jessie developed her lovingly realistic dog models, whether certain breeds are easier to replicate than others, and how one of her own pooches reacts to the felted canines.
Dogster: What did your first attempts at needle-felted animals look like?
Jessie Dockins: You had to guess what they were! My first animals looked lop-sided and cartoonish and not very much like the animals they were meant to be. The first dog sculpture I made was of one of my own dogs, Alice, a Shepherd mix. Everyone thought the sculpture was an obese Scottish Terrier ― but at least they could tell it was a dog!
I stuck with it, trying to get better with every animal I made. Then I began researching my animals before sculpting them, spending a good deal of time studying photos and drawings. So for my dog sculptures these days, I begin by researching the breed of dog I’m making: I study skeletal structure, musculature diagrams, and coat types and patterns, all before I even begin sculpting. As I’m working, I constantly refer to these figures and diagrams, and of course, many photographs of the actual dog I’m creating a sculpture of.
Your sculptures are very detailed. How long does it take to create one?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as I work on my sculptures a little at a time. I estimate each dog takes from one to three weeks to complete. I have a full-time day job ― and I’m mom to a one-year-old ― so I work on my sculptures in the evenings after work and after I put my son to sleep. I used to felt for hours nonstop, late into the night, but now I’ve learned to take frequent breaks. If I can step away even momentarily ― just long enough, say, to make tomorrow’s lunches ― then I’m able to look at my sculpture with a fresh perspective when I return to it. This really helps me tweak and fine tune the details of my dogs. And it’s these fine details that make my dog sculptures look like the real dog.
You mentioned basing the needle-felted sculptures on photographs of the dogs. What’s the trickiest part about working that way?
Not being able to see the actual dog! I work from photographs my clients send me, so I have to piece together photos taken from the back, front, and sides into an entire three-dimensional dog. This is the most challenging aspect of making a dog, but it is also the most rewarding. When I can pose my dog sculpture and it looks like the one in the photo, I know I’m finished!
Are there any breeds that are much harder to work with?
Yes, some breeds are more challenging than others. For instance, I find Greyhounds and Whippets to be challenging because they have incredibly long, thin legs and muzzles. If I’m not careful, my Greyhound sculptures end up looking like they’re on steroids. Dogs with complex coat patterns can be difficult as well, but those oftentimes end up being my favorite sculptures, probably because of all the time and attention to detail that goes into them.
Which famous or celebrity dog would you most like to turn into a needle-felt model?
Just the other day I saw an old photo of Mark Twain standing beside a huge dog that looked like a Saint Bernard mix. The photo had a quote of Twain’s that said, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.” I’d like to create a felt version of the entire photo, both Mark Twain and his canine companion.
Have you heard any stories about a client’s dog using the needle-felt version of himself as a toy and destroying it?
No, thankfully people know to keep the felt version away from their real dog! Dogs ― and cats for that matter ― love needle-felted sculptures and given half a chance will love them to death. Many of my creations have fallen victim to our smallest dog, Willie. Once, I followed bits of an owl I had made ― a wing here, a tail there ― back to Willie’s bed, and there he was, happily munching my owl to shreds!
We have three dogs: Alice, Fern, and Willie. Alice is a 15-year-old Shepherd mix. She was a starving stray when someone found her in a nearby park. She’s been my companion for 14 years now, and I can’t imagine life without her ― she is my soul dog. Then Fern is a Boxer mix; I found her when she was a puppy, running alongside the highway. She is a spoiled 75-pound lap dog and can be found sitting on top of someone or stretched out on the couch at any given time. I already mentioned Willie, our tiny terrier. Willie thinks he is an alpha wolf and spends most of his time asserting his dominance over Fern and Alice by doing things like guarding the food bowl and being the first out the door. Luckily, Alice and Fern could care less, so Willie is safe in his delusions!
Alice is a dog’s dog and doesn’t pay attention to my needle felting whatsoever. Fern sniffs my sculptures and then retreats to the couch. Willie wants to eat my sculptures, the loose wool, and pretty much anything that has to do with my felting! Once a client sent me video of her dog’s reaction to seeing her felt sculpture the first time. At first she barked and growled, and then she realized the felt dog wasn’t going to do anything ― so she gave it a good sniff and laid down!
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